TIP OF THE WEEK – What the Heck is Working Capital and Why Should You Care?

What the Heck is Working Capital and Why Should You Care?

Jason Brizic

April 20st, 2011

You need to know what working capital is because it is one of the indicators of balance sheet strength.

Follow Benjamin Graham’s advice on the importance of working capital.  The following passage comes from the 1937 book The Interpretation of Financial Statements Chapter XII:

            In studying what is called the “current position” of an enterprise, we never consider the current assets by themselves, but only in relation to the current liabilities.  The current position involves two important factors: (a) the excess of current assets over current liabilities – known as the Net Current Assets or the Working Capital, and (b) the ratio of current assets to current liabilities – known as the Current Ratio.

            The Working Capital is found by subtracting the current liabilities from the current assets.  Working Capital is a consideration of major importance in determining financial strength of an industrial enterprise, and it deserves attention also in the analysis of public utility and railroad securities.

            In the working capital is found the measure of the company’s ability to carry on its normal business comfortably and without financial stringency, to expand its operations without the need of new financing, and to meet emergencies and losses without disaster.  The investment in plant account (or fixed assets) is of little aid in meeting these demands.  Shortage of working capital, at its very least, results in slow payment of bills with attendant poor credit rating, in curtailment of operations and rejection of desirable business, and in a general inability to “turn around” and make progress.  Its more serious consequence is insolvency and the bankruptcy court.

            The proper amount of working capital required by a particular enterprise will depend upon both the amount and the character of its business.  The chief point of comparison is the amount of working capital per dollar of sales.  A company doing business for cash and enjoying a rapid turnover of inventory – for example, a chain grocery enterprise – needs a much lower working capital compared with sales than does the manufacturer of heavy machinery sold on long-term payments.

            The working capital is also studied in relation to fixed assets and to capitalization, especially the funded debt and preferred stock.  A good industrial bond or preferred stock is expected, in most cases, to be entirely covered in amount by the net current assets.  The working capital available for each share of common stock is an interesting figure in common stock analysis.  The growth or decline of the working capital position over a period of years is also worthy of the investor’s attention.

            In the field of railroads and public utilities, the working capital item is not scrutinized as carefully as in the case of industrials.  The nature of these service enterprises is such as to require relatively little investment in receivables or inventory (supplies).  It has been customary to provide for expansion by means of new financing rather than out of surplus cash.  A prosperous utility may at times permit its current liabilities to exceed its current assets, replenishing the working capital position a little later as part of its financing program.

            The careful investor, however, will prefer utility and railroad companies that consistently show a comfortable working capital situation.

Let’s take a look at Safe Bulkers (SB) working capital situation from the past few years (Source: Morningstar.com).  Safe Bulkers financial strength has been eroding along with the dry bulk shipping market.






Total Current Assets






Total Current Liabilities






Working Capital






Current Ratio












WC as % of Revenue






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Published in: on April 20, 2012 at 3:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

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